Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Committee on Public Information and the Office of War Information

This entry is a work in progress; updated/reviewed 5/22/2016; suggestions welcome -- please email

From: J. Michael Sproule, Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) 188-189:
Out of the juggling of administrative titles and functions that characterized the wartime propaganda agencies, the OWI [Office of War Information, 1942-1945] emerged as the closes thing to the CPI [Committee  on Public Information, 1917-1919] in title if not in function. On the domestic scene, the OWI went through a metamorphosis similar to that of the Creel committee [CPI], moving from an emphasis on coordinating news to a focus on conducting promotions to increase support for the war. The agency released pamphlets and documentaries and also established an office to advise the film industry on ways to build wartime moale. As had been the case with the CPI, the Domestic Branch of the OWI suffered from the suspicion of Congress that the organization aimed chiefly to boost the political standing of the president. Further, the progressive ideology expressed in the OWI publications and in movie liaison work drew fire from conservatives. During the war, Southern congressmen criticized the racial equality promoted by the OWI -- for instance, in the agency's publication, Negroes and the War. After the war, when the nation's attention shifted to Russia, certain of the OWI's efforts to promote good feeling toward our Soviet ally would prove embarrassing.
The OWI quickly discovered that, even more than in 1917-1918, propaganda sponsored by a pluralistic government conjured up a variety of irrepressible conflicts. For their part, the OWI's idealistic writers favored a progressive reform agenda similar to that proclaimed by the CPI. Fearing that a focus on Pearl Harbor leant an excessively defensive cast to the war, OWI pamphleteers such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Malcolm Cowley preferred to recast the war as an antifascist crusade that harkened to a new era in international cooperation. When conversation members of Congress objected to defining the war in leftist [p. 189:] ideological terms, the resulting notoriety alarmed OWI policy makers, who feared for the fate of the agency's appropriations. The senior staff of the Domestic Branch, headed by Gardner Cowles, Jr., Gallup's old mentor, attempted to rein in the writers, precipitating a rebellion within the OWI. A group of wordsmiths continued to press for their own utopian program and against the tendency of administrators to favor the more contentless and sloganistic promotionalism of the War. Finding little support for their effort to frame the war in liberal terms, these writers resigned en masse, issuing an intemperate public statement charging that the OWI's domestic work was controlled by "high-pressure promoters who prefer slick salesmanship to honest information." (22)
p. 298:
(22) Sydney Weinberg, "What to Tell America," Journal of American History 55 (1968): 73-89.

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